European Union backs down on cadmium pigment ban

Artists across the European Union are popping tubes of red, yellow and orange paint in celebration over the defeat of a proposed EU-wide ban on cadmium pigment.

As the Art Newspaper reports, the announcement was made on 28 October 2015 after a lengthy and impassioned campaign by artists and paint makers to save what artist Emily Faludy has described as “sunshine in a tube.”

Cadmium has been used in artists’ paints since the 1840s. The pigment appears on numerous iconic artists’ canvases including Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’, which hangs in London’s National Gallery.

The ban loomed after a Swedish report submitted to the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) raised concerns over the potentially harmful effects of cadmium on human health. The report suggested that artists who rinsed their paint brushes in the sink risked contaminating water supplies with cadmium. The pigment would in turn find its way into food via sewage sludge spread on agricultural land.

The ECHA responded to the report with proposed legislation which would have banned EU paint makers from using cadmium. This sparked a vociferous campaign by artists, printmakers and paint makers to thwart the limitation of their palettes.

Coordinated by UK paint maker Spectrum Paints, the campaign received support from Artists & Illustrators Magazine as well as artists such as Emily Faludy and Michele Del Campo who signed a petition opposing the ban and was covered by extensive blogging by Jackson’s Art.

Rachel Volpé of Spectrum Paints explained the campaign strategy:

“Whilst we discussed the technical case for cadmium pigments, many artists were passionately able to stress the economic and artistic importance of cadmiums as they uniquely bring warmth, light, strength and colour to paintings to stand the test of time.”

Managing Director of Spectrum Paints, Michael Craine told the Independent in September that the ban was simply unnecessary:

“artists have been hit by a punch that was intended for a bigger fight. Cadmium is not used by amateurs, it is used by professionals who take great care and the product is expensive. Artists are not polluters.”

The real culprits according to Craine are nickel-cadmium batteries dumped in landfills. The sale of these batteries in the EU is regulated by a 2006 EU directive but enforcement is difficult.

Craine’s view is supported by the findings of REACH, an EU body which advises on chemicals. These have shown that while cadmium is highly toxic in its pure form, the compounds used in artists’ paints are not classified as hazardous.

The victory belongs not simply to artists who can happily continue to set their canvases ablaze with fiery tones. Craine explains that the decision has much wider-reaching implications:

“Not only is the change of heart over cadmium a joyous occasion, the fact that the artist fraternity is recognised as a community in its own right is an exciting development and one that should help us protect our mutual interests in the future.”

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